Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Escape from Mexico: Joseph Pearson went to Mexico City to see what makes Mexico different from the U.S. We have the Protestants’ vision of progress, in the U.S., which says that we have simply progressed past the point of Mexico; but in a lot of ways, Pearson finds, it is more a vision of what we could become than of what we once were. It’s a travelogue, but implicit in it is the suggestion that the more we pursue our current path, the more we risk dragging ourselves down rather than elevating them. In Boston University’s AGNI:

Isn’t [Rivera’s triptych of murals at the Palacio Nacional] a similar idyll to that romanced in demonstrations by the disenfranchised indigenous just outside in the Zócalo? They propagandize the agenda of the Chiapas Zapatistas led by the former “subcommandante” turned “delegate” Marcos in his black ski-mask and rifle. The mass of demonstrators cannot easily enter the building, built by Cortéz and now a seat of government, that houses the murals of Marx positioned as God the Father in a great last judgment of capitalism.

On the square, I pass an upscale hotel bar where, untouchable through the glass, middle-aged gentlemen in three-piece suits watch American football and smoke. I saw flâneurs in the same anachronistic dress window-shopping at stationers that sell leather desk pads and fancy fountain pens — the tools of the gentleman to place conspicuously in a study to gain the esteem of the rank and file of the establishment. Around the doors of the Hotel Gran Ciudad de México, with its wondrous Art-Nouveau dome, are younger men in the casual uniform of Lacoste gold shirts tucked into khaki pants. They sport expensive watches in a city where wearing a plastic one is the only sure method to prevent being mugged. They pile into a taxi, and a tickle of fear rises up my neck. Disparities of wealth exist everywhere, but they are rarely so visible as in a city without a real middle class. I am afraid not because Mexico is unique in its share of misery. It’s not. I am afraid because Mexico is the future.

From the Zócalo with its enormous flag (never trust big flags) and its great square (which dubiously claims to be the second biggest in the world), and the nearby Latin American tower (again, called the tallest in the Latin world, when there are higher ones right in Mexico City, and certainly dozens in São Paolo), I walk from mighty claims through streets of vendors—shabby shops of taffeta dresses and yet more ubiquitous pen shops—to the metro which carries the people of the city. A boy in bare feet stands next to a gendarme with white gloves. I see an entire family squatting on a platform, together and destitute, all showing great hunger. I pass by their unified squalor and in my unease I neither stop nor give them a cent. They are like a fading constellation, the two adults behind, at different heights, then children before them — still — as if posed for a daguerreotype.

I get off at Insurgentes where on one corner are men windswept in stained clothes waiting for the bus, and on another is an elegant restaurant with a fortified entrance. I walk through the Zona Rosa, with its gay shops and cafes like a throwback from an era still wrapped in rainbow flags and bumper-stickers—another form of resistance or of conformity? A merry bubble of conversation, music and good living emerges from the open thresholds, and for a moment, the question does not really matter.


Monday, January 29, 2007

Rocket man: On Saturday, the Portland Aerial Tram opened for business, running from South Waterfront to Oregon Health Sciences University. It was a source of much contention six years ago, when they first announced the project, but in the intervening time a lot of the controversy has gone away. Now it's winning over riders with its incredible view of downtown, the East Side and the mountains on the way down from Marquam Hill, even at $4 a round-trip ticket. In a city with an unusual and sometimes uneven mix of mass transit -- buses, trains, a streetcar, and a fareless zone encompassing downtown, the Pearl District and the Convention Center -- this is just one more smart innovation, a way of turning a 15-minute zig-zag drive or bus ride up a hill into the triangle's hypotenuse. From the Oregonian:

People started talking openly about a $3 million tram as far as back as 1998. One neighborhood activist considered it crazy talk. As in, you'd be crazy to build a car hanging from wires to leap over Interstate 5 so it could connect a rusted industrial yard to OHSU's main campus.

Yet the idea kept climbing.


The silver, bubblelike tram cars, still wrapped in clear plastic, made their first flight on an unusually sunny November afternoon. The new transit option opened for OHSU employees in mid-December. [Saturday, January 27 was] the public opening, but when Portland got hit [in early January] by a snowstorm, the tram opened early to ferry people up and off the hill.

For the white-collar set, the tram is a sign of progress with billions of dollars spent on OHSU's expansion and the 130-acre South Waterfront revival.

For the skeptical, the tram is a reminder of lax government management. Quoted at $15.5 million in 2002, the tram today will land at $57 million. (The city says this time that it's not a penny more.)

For nonbelievers, the tram is a symbol of the growing separation between the wealth of downtown and the poverty of far North and East Portland.

[Link, and to the Times' coverage]

Sunday, January 28, 2007

Dancing's not the devil's work anymore: John Brown University, in Arkansas, is finally allowing dancing after 90 years. Apparently, they don't believe it's sin anymore. I never understood that curious attitude -- but it's fairly prevalent. So, here's to "Footloose" no more:

The school's "community covenant" had prohibited, in addition to smoking, sex outside of marriage, drinking and gambling, all on-campus dancing except "folk or square dancing and choreography as part of a dramatic production." Distinctions were not made -- the Viennese waltz was as forbidden as the electric slide, the achy-breaky as taboo as the lambada. The week before J.B.U.'s first dance, Tracie Faust, a senior, told me about one night her sophomore year when a popular song came on the radio. "And before you knew it," she said, "there were 10 of us dancing, and the R.A. came out of her room and told us to stop." The offending song? "Breakaway," by the adult-lite American Idol Kelly Clarkson.

J.B.U.'s about-face, while abrupt, was not totally unexpected. In the past 10 years, several of America’s most established evangelical schools, including Baylor University in Texas, Wheaton College in Illinois and Cornerstone University in Michigan, have lifted restrictions on dancing, even as they have kept various rules against activities like drinking, gambling, smoking and, of course, premarital sex. They are opting to allow formal dances, like swing or ballroom. Of course, it's unlikely there will be hip-hop or bump-and-grind at J.B.U. They will not be krumping. But for millions of evangelical Protestants, dancing has become increasingly acceptable. There are still conservative Christians, particularly in Baptist, Pentecostal and independent Bible-church traditions, who don't dance, but they are growing scarce. The old joke about why Baptists won't have sex standing up -- because people might think they’re dancing -- has become antiquated.

"I was part of a group of girls who would put on music in our rooms and dance, and were asked to stop," Jennifer Paulsen told me. Paulsen is the student-government president who helped persuade the trustees to overturn the ban. It was three days before the dance, and we were talking in the Walker Student Center, J.B.U.'s main hub. "We knew there was 'no social dancing,' but what did that mean? We knew folk and square dancing was allowed, and people will always move a little if a good song comes on, but how many people makes a dance?"

In my week at J.B.U., I met students who had never had a drink, had never kissed a boy or a girl and had no doubt that dinosaurs and men walked the earth at the same time. But I didn't meet a soul who thought dancing was sinful. And nearly all the students I spoke to danced in high school.


The American face of Islam: The moment a lot of multiculturalism-minded Americans are waiting for is the deradicalization, liberalization of Western Islam — for what happened to American Catholics and Jews to happen in the Muslim community. It may be, if the story of one imam who moved from Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, to suburban Jersey is any indication. Remember that this man ministers to the middle class and to the poor immigrants. In the Times today:

To be a successful suburban imam, he found, meant persuading doctors and lawyers not to rush from prayers to beat traffic. It meant connecting with teenagers who drove new cars, and who peppered their Arabic with “like” and “yeah.” It meant helping his daughter cope with mockery at school, in a predominantly white town that lost dozens of people on Sept. 11.

Mr. Shata knew from his years in Brooklyn that the job demanded more than preaching and leading prayers, the things for which he was trained in Egypt. In America, he helped to arrange marriages. He mediated between the F.B.I. and his people. He set up a makeshift Islamic court to resolve disputes among hot dog vendors.


Many Muslims were shocked to read [in a previous article in the Times] that the imam thought oral sex was permissible for married couples (even though respected Islamic scholars in the Middle East concurred with his opinion, he said). Others objected to his view that Muslims could sell liquor or pork if they could find no other work.

One critique of Mr. Shata on a jihadist Web site in England singled out his hometown, Kafr al Battikh, which is known for its watermelons. “Oh, Allah,” it read, “preserve Islam and Muslims from the evil people of watermelons.”

In Bay Ridge, the articles prompted a fistfight outside a Dunkin’ Donuts. Fliers warned in Arabic that the imam was “a devil.”


Saturday, January 27, 2007

A tremendous failure (TimesSelect): Since I’ve already mentioned it, I unearthed Nicholas Kristof’s column about the failure of the development of the Great Plains, from September 2002. For those of you without TimesSelect access, I’m going to excerpt as much as I can and try to unearth the full text somewhere else for you. The lesson to take from this and from the story of Yubari, it seems to me, is that the government largesse that keeps Hokkaido, as well as the Great Plains, ticking is only an invitation for greater trouble later. It may be heartless, but someone has to say it: If you can innovate and make a future for yourself in small-town or rural Upper Midwest, go to it — but don’t ask me to pay for you to have the unsustainable life you have there now.

It’s time for us to acknowledge one of America’s greatest mistakes, a 140-year-old scheme that has failed at a cost of trillions of dollars, countless lives and immeasurable heartbreak: the settlement of the Great Plains.

The plains, which have overtaken places like Appalachia to become by far the poorest part of the country, represent a monumental failure in American history. To understand more I came here to Loup County, officially the poorest county in the United States, with a per capita income of $6,600 (New York County, or Manhattan, is the nation’s richest, at $90,900).

In fairness, Loup doesn’t look poor, and it’s so rich in warmth, community spirit and old-fashioned friendliness that it’s just about impossible for a stranger to pay for a meal here. The tiny school, the only one in the county, has student lockers with no locks; and outside, students’ cars are not only unlocked, but the keys are left in the ignition.


This vast region in the middle of America, more than five times the size of California, now meets the 19th-century definition of frontier, with six or fewer people per square mile. Instead of the frontier closing, as Frederick Jackson Turner declared a century ago, it is expanding, and we may look back on large-scale settlement of the Plains as a fluke, a temporary domination now receding again.

The aridity of the Great Plains is partly to blame for the failed land development here, but fault also lies in the vapidity of American farm programs — which President Bush and Congress are now expanding. It was, after all, a web of subsidies and government land promotion schemes that lured people to the Great Plains in the first place.

President Bush signed a $180 billion farm bill this year, with the backing of many Democrats as well as Republicans, after a gutless surrender to lobbyists for wealthy farmers. But the program will actually aggravate rural distress.

Subsidies do nothing to help hard-working ranchers here, because the money overwhelmingly goes to crop farmers rather than livestock owners. Worse, much of the money goes to the most prosperous families (47 percent of commodity payments go to farmers whose household income is more than $135,000), who use the cash to buy up more land. Subsidies thus accelerate the consolidation of farms that is already depopulating rural areas.


Forget but don’t forgive… their debt: The days of plenty in Japan are past, and with them trillions of yen in government largesse to outlying regions. The result is that towns like Yubari, on Hokkaido, are buried as much in debt as in snow. It’s the predictable consequence of meaningless government-works projects being showered on a town whose main economic source is dying; and it lends far more credence to the Nicholas Kristof view of redevelopment (TimesSelect) than to David Brooks’, to make a Times analogy. It’s an important lesson, too, for the Ohios and West Virginias. The Times says:

During Japan’s economic boom, Tokyo showered enormous subsidies on Yubari to build these huge though poorly thought-out tourist attractions, which drew few visitors, ran large deficits and saddled this city of 12,828 inhabitants with more than $500 million in debt.

At first it was a convenient arrangement: the hinterlands prospered, politically connected contractors had plenty of work and the government cemented the loyalty of rural voters. But the good times ended in the 1990s, and the government slowly closed the financial spigots, leaving Yubari and other rural cities increasingly desperate.


As part of its plan to file for bankruptcy, place itself in the hands of Tokyo and repay its debts over 20 years, Yubari has put History Village and about 20 other tourist attractions up for sale. About half of the 300 city workers are leaving, and those who stay face salary cuts ranging from 30 percent to 70 percent.

The city’s 11 schools will be consolidated into three or four; its hospital will become a clinic; its library, city hall branches and public baths will be shuttered. City bus discounts for the elderly will be reduced. Local taxes will rise. Already, snowfalls now have to total six inches, rather than four, before they are cleared.

No cost-cutting measure has been deemed too small. The toilet at the Yubari train station has been closed, forcing travelers to sneak into the adjoining hotel.


Friday, January 26, 2007

Fighting crime, a dollar at a time: When the state of Arizona noticed that more than $90,000 a month was changing hands at a Western Union in Douglas, Ariz., they got suspicious. After all, Douglas is a small city with an almost pathetically poor population. It is, however, near the Arizona-Sonora border, and it turns out that Douglas was the lynchpin of a huge immigrant-smuggling ring. The Washington Post reports:

People across the country, prosecutors said, were sending money to the little Western Union shop in Douglas — and scores others like it in Arizona — to pay smugglers to sneak illegal immigrants into the United States.

To fight back, Attorney General Terry Goddard employed a controversial technique known as a damming warrant to seize $17 million in money transfers into hundreds of Western Union locations in Arizona, prosecute scores of immigrant smugglers and deport hundreds of people in a program he marvels at because of its “elegant simplicity.”


So on Sept. 21, Goddard expanded the program, issuing a warrant blocking all Western Union money transfers of $500 and above from 26 states with a significant population of illegal immigrants to a group of Western Union outlets in the northern Mexican state of Sonora. He also planned on issuing warrants blocking money transfers through Western Union to nearby states such as Nevada.


Thursday, January 25, 2007

Burning down the house: A wealthy Palm Beach homeowner rented his $8.5 million, 9,000-square-foot house out to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers club vice president and his wife, and found it trashed to the tune of $100,000 after only six weeks. Apparently having money doesn’t make you a good tenant. I give you the Palm Beach Post:

“Mr. Henderson still has a hard time believing the extent of the damage done in such a short period of time,” said Mike Powers, Henderson’s spokesman. “At first, he didn’t want to rent the place out. He’s upset he let himself be talked into it.”

Through his lawyer, Justus Reid, Henderson is now suing the Glazers in a Palm Beach County court. He wants the $300,000 back rent plus damages. Those also included: the removal and improper storage of 14 rare Oriental rugs and wall-to-wall carpeting; breaking of every window screen on the first floor; permanent opening of windows for two weeks at a time during the rainy season; removal of $30,000, 14-foot draperies and storage in cardboard boxes; drilling of holes throughout the home for DIRECTV installation; removal of landscaping; and repainting of walls in colors that didn’t match.


Powers said Henderson received several complaints from Angela concerning air quality. She claimed there was mold throughout the house and dog hair in the rugs, even though Henderson spent $8,000 on sanitizing before the Glazers moved in.

“She complained a lot about the Henderson dog because she spotted it while touring the house,” Powers said. “But we’re talking about a 6-pound Maltese named Bling-Bling, and he’s hypoallergenic.”


Houston, we have a problem: Apparently, none of the posts I have been making in the last four days have shown up in Blogger’s database. In addition, none of them are stored on my computer anywhere. So. They are gone… Damn. I’m sorry, guys. I didn’t even think to check if they were showing up. Hopefully today we’ll be back on our regular schedule, without glitches, if I can figure out what was causing the posts to disappear.

Sunday, January 21, 2007

Lies and the lying liars who tell them: A reader writes Andrew Sullivan to tell him Attorney General Alberto Gonzales’ conceit that habeas corpus may be denied to certain prisoners literally ignores the whole history of the United States:

[G]o back and look at Thomas Jefferson’s First Inaugural Address: [Jefferson] says very clearly that habeas is one of the basic premises of our entire system of government; that it’s a fundamental right that shores up all the others. Elsewhere he identifies habeas as one of the “four pillars” of our constitutional system. You’re not going to convince me that the Founding Fathers didn’t view habeas as “grandfathered” into the US system — that’s simply obvious. So why are we now being subjected to this Stalinist historical revisionism? Why does the Attorney General of the United States make comments like this in such a public forum? He would only make them because he needs them for cover, i.e., because he has advocated and implemented a consistent policy of violating habeas corpus rights that rests on each of these niggling distinctions. Which is why one should stop scrutinizing the footnotes of law review articles and be worried.


Once more into the breach: As I alluded to yesterday, Bill Richardson’s been mulling running for president. For as long as I can remember, honestly: He was rumored as a Gore running mate in 2000, before Gore chose disastrous Joe Lieberman; and he seriously considered a 2004 run. Now he’s throwing his hat into the ‘08 ring. It’s gonna be one doozy of a primary season:

In his statement, Richardson stressed his foreign affairs experience, said he wanted U.S. troops to return quickly from Iraq and urged a change of leadership in Washington that would work to bridge a wide partisan divide.

“The next president of the United States must get our troops out of Iraq without delay,” Richardson said. “I know the Middle East well and it’s clear that our presence in Iraq isn’t helping any longer.”

He added that the next president “must be able to bring a country together that is divided and partisan. It is clear that Washington is broken and it’s going to take a return to bipartisanship and simple respect for each other’s views to get it fixed.”

Most policy innovations are coming these days from governors, Richardson said. “On issues like the environment, jobs, and health care, state governments are leading the way. And that’s because we can’t be partisan or we won’t get our jobs done. That’s a lesson I’ve learned as governor and that’s what I’ll do as president.”


Saturday, January 20, 2007

Movin’ on up: This week, CNN reported that Sens. Hillary Clinton (D-NY) and Barack Obama (D-IL) will be running for president. New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson (D) is expected to announce tomorrow. It’s the moment we’ve all been waiting for: a Democratic primary between a Clinton, a Clintonite and a New New Democrat. A Democratic primary between a woman, an African American and a Latino. It’s almost as good as the Saints playing for the chance to go to the Super Bowl tomorrow! (Almost.) On Clinton:

Bringing “the right end” to the war in Iraq, reducing the deficit, making the country energy independent and health care affordable were issues Clinton touted in her announcement, speaking on a video posted on her site.

“After six years of George Bush, it is time to renew the promise of America,” she said.

“I grew up in a middle-class family in the middle of America, and we believed in that promise,” the 59-year-old Chicago native said.

“I still do. I’ve spent my entire life trying to make good on it, whether it was fighting for women’s basic rights or children’s basic health care, protecting our social security or protecting our soldiers.”

On Sunday she’ll appear at the Ryan Chelsea-Clinton Community Health Center to discuss legislation that would expand the State Children’s Health Insurance Program. The center bears the names of the two Manhattan neighborhoods it serves — Chelsea and Clinton — coincidentally, Chelsea Clinton is the senator’s daughter’s name.

And on Obama:

“The decisions that have been made in Washington over the past six years and the problems that have been ignored have put our country in a precarious place,” he said in the video.

In addition to citing “the tragic and costly war that should never have been waged,” Obama mentioned health care, pensions, college tuition and “our continued dependence on oil” as issues that need work.

But he said it is the “smallness of our politics” that most bothers him. (Watch Obama try to turn a potential negative into a positive )

“Today, our leaders in Washington seem incapable of working together in a practical, common-sense way. Politics has become so bitter and partisan and gummed up by money and influence that we can’t tackle the big problems that demand solutions, and that’s what we have to change.”

Obama said his final decision will be made based on what he learns over the next several weeks as he travels the country “listening and learning about the challenges we face as a nation.”

[Links to the Obama story and the Clinton story]

Friday, January 19, 2007

The Saints are coming…: As a lifelong New Orleans Saints fan, I’ve known my share of misery and disappointment. There’s a thread right now, on Saints Report, called “Win It For,” and one poor guy laid out the whole chronology of misery. The Saints have been bad his entire life. Now, they’re 60 minutes from the Super Bowl. All I have to say: Geaux Saints!

Win it for the sixteen year old who cried when Hank Stram became the head coach, because that sixteen year old knew beyond all doubt that his Saints would finally become the winners he always believed they could be.

Win it for the seventeen year old who took the jeers of all of his classmates as he continued to cheer for “Thunder and Lightning” despite a futile record.

Win it for the eighteen year old who finally saw his hero get the recognition he deserved, as Archie won NFC MVP honors, despite playing for a losing team.

Win it for the nineteen year old, for whom Archie signed a football to be auctioned off in a benefit to raise money to care for the nineteen year old’s dying grandmother.

Win it for the twenty year old, who refused to wear a bag and held his head high as he fervently believed in his team.


Thursday, January 18, 2007

Life is fragile: Alejandro Iñárritu makes movies that are seemingly about how miserable and dark life is. But, he says, they’re all about hope. Alice O’Keefe, in The New Statesman, asks what exactly he means by that:

The new film returns to a question raised in 21 Grams: how do you measure the value of a human life? “The New York Times says that 3,000 Americans have died in Iraq, and 600,000 Iraqis. Imagine if that number of Americans had died. It is inconceivable. The value of American lives is [high], but in Africa, a million people can die and there’s no reaction.” Perhaps unsurprisingly, this message has had a mixed reception in the States, where the film premièred in October. One critic objected to “Iñárritu and [his screenwriter Guillermo] Arriaga’s aggressive suggestion that we Americans and white Europeans are something less than exemplary citizens of the world, particularly in times of crisis”. It was a response that came as little surprise to the director. “Unfortunately, there is a certain type of American who thinks that this film is a criticism, when it’s not. It is simply a commentary on the reality,” he says. “It is a very American sentiment, which interprets any kind of criticism as an attack. It’s like the position of Bush: you’re either with me or against me; there’s no dialogue. Many people have felt attacked — sadly, because it was never intended to be an attack.”

As the title suggests, one of Babel’s central conceits is the difficulty of cross-cultural communication. But although the encounters between cultures in it are characterised by fear and mistrust, all the characters have the same fundamental priorities: family and the search for love. Like Iñárritu’s previous two films, it is fundamentally about “parents and children, that is the nucleus. And through this microcosm you can observe the macrocosm; you do a biopsy on the cell to see how the body is working.”

It is, perhaps, a simplistic vision that steers well clear of areas of deep inter-cultural conflict such as religion. But it is one that Iñárritu insists cinema can and should articulate. “The beauty of cinema is that it is the universal language,” he says. “I decided to make this film using very few words, as I was striving for a very pure kind of film. The visual language takes audiences, without words or translations, into places they could never reach in reality.”


Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Who says ‘authoritative touch’ anyway? Ashley Cross, a Columbia student, wrote Saturday in the Times’ “Modern Love” column about the experience of dating a fellow student who had been accused of rape at Harvard. She seems to have no sense of the rape at all, only anger at boyfriend who had been somehow ‘neutered’ by the rehabilitative process. This is the world’s worst relationship writing I have ever read. Why do women always defend men like this?

The larger point, it seems to me, is that what she wanted was sex a little more aggressive than a boyfriend who had just been accused of rape and felt remorse for it, and now she’s kvetching about it in a national newspaper, but I’ll let you all judge:

One evening, as we were sharing coffee and cigarettes at a local diner while trading quips from “Casablanca,” he subtly blew smoke in my face. For all I knew it was unintentional, but I smiled at the gesture.

“If you were Humphrey Bogart,” I said, “then you’d know that blowing smoke in a woman’s face is an invitation for sex.”

Rather than smile back, he blanched. “I didn’t know that,” he said, then changed the subject.


Almost all of his close friends were girls. From what I knew, he had a strong relationship with his parents, who were progressive and intelligent and nurturing. He was a rule follower, a brilliant and dedicated student, a chronic people pleaser. He had a history of serial monogamy. I simply couldn’t reconcile the smart, gentle guy I knew with this startling revelation.

As I peppered him with questions, he talked me through the fateful night of only a few months before, when he and the girl, who’d been a friend, had mingled at a party and drifted off drunk together before winding up back in her room, where, several hours later, they had sex. She became hysterical, claiming he forced himself on her. He left, bewildered and distraught. That night he wrote her a letter apologizing for upsetting her and left it at her door. He told me the letter was an attempt to salvage the friendship.

“Did you rape her?” I asked.

“We had sex,” he said. “But I didn’t mean to hurt her, no.”

Nothing he had done that summer made me disbelieve him. Later, as events unfolded, I would learn everything I could about the case, not only from all the news media coverage but also from visiting Harvard and talking to mutual friends and co-workers of theirs. At the urging of his parole officer, I read the accuser’s statement of what had happened. Still, I believed him and supported him. (Ed. note: The complaint was summarized by the Harvard Crimson is still in the Crimson’s online archive. It seems pretty clearly rape.)


Already he felt the shame of the charge and conviction. With the sexual evaluations, he was forced to question the normalcy of his impulses. Now the rehabilitation extinguished the remaining spark he had left, the irreverence I’d originally fallen in love with, replacing it with a generic “respect” for others that in reality was a kind of bland and suffocating politeness.


Desire, once joyful, became a source of stress, something dangerous and potentially ugly that needed to be suppressed, and an awkward civility overtook our love life. Anything sexual between us became for him an urge not of primitive pleasure but of apologetic shame.

Regardless of how much I reassured him that everything was fine, he grew increasingly afraid of touching me in an authoritative way. In public, we stopped kissing or even holding hands. And during sex, any sound I made alarmed him, and he’d recoil, so I learned to stay silent.

Even so, he began asking, constantly, if I was O.K. But I didn’t want to be O.K. — I wanted to have bold, carefree, shameless sex with the man I wanted. One night I grew so tired of him asking me if I was all right that I snapped: “Don’t ask me that ever again! I’m fine. Don’t ask me that.” Which, of course, only led him to apologize about asking me, and then to apologize about apologizing — “Sorry, sorry, sorry.”

[Link], and hat-tips to Shakespeare’s Sister’s and Adam B.’s analyses

For shame: The United States is still holding 393 detainees at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba. Some of them are bound to be dangerous to the United States; but if someone can explain to me why we’re still holding Gholam Ruhani and Shakhrukh Hamiduva, I’d love to hear it. The Washington Post explains the saga of the many low-profile inmates from the war in Afghanistan:

Gholam Ruhani was among them, the prison’s third official inmate, flown in by cargo plane with the first group of 20 men. The 23-year-old Afghan shopkeeper, who spoke a little English, was seized near his hometown of Ghazni when he agreed to translate for a Taliban government official seeking a meeting with a U.S. soldier.

Ruhani is still at Guantanamo, marking the fifth anniversary of the prison and his own captivity. He remains as stunned about his fate, according to transcripts of his conversations with military officers, as he was when U.S. military police led him inside the razor wire on Jan. 11, 2002, and accused him of being America’s enemy.

“I never had a war against the United States, and I am surprised I’m here,” Ruhani told his captors during his first chance to hear the military’s reasons for holding him, three years after he arrived at Guantanamo. “I tried to cooperate with Americans. I am no enemy of yours.”


“We of course had to make snap judgments in the battlefield,” said one administration official involved in reviewing Guantanamo cases, who spoke anonymously to avoid angering superiors. “Where we had problems was that once we had individuals in custody, no one along the layers of review wanted to take a risk. So they would take a shred of evidence that a detainee was associated with another bad person and say that’s a reason to keep them.”


One is Shakhrukh Hamiduva, an 18-year-old Uzbek refugee who fled his country after the government there killed one of his uncles and jailed other relatives. He tried to cross the border from Afghanistan when U.S. bombs started falling but was captured by a tribal leader and sold to U.S. forces for a bounty. He said soldiers told him he would be released, but instead he ended up in Cuba.

“We went after small fries at every turn,” said Neal Katyal, a Georgetown University law professor who helped argue the Supreme Court case last June that struck down the government’s original plan for military trials. “Gitmo blew our credibility. And it’s going to take a long time to get it back.”


Monday, January 15, 2007

Vive la reine! Who would have thought that the land of sauteed frog's legs and bouillabaisse would propose marriage with the island mostly known for burnt roast beef and "pies" with meat and vegetables in them. Yes, that's right: France once proposed entering the United Kingdom, in 1956, according to documents in the British National Archives. The AP reports:

[British PM] Eden rejected the idea of a union but was more favorable to a French proposal to join the Commonwealth, according to the documents. One document added that [French PM] Mollet ''had not thought there need be difficulty over France accepting the headship of her Majesty (Queen Elizabeth II).''

While the two nations -- separated by a thin body of water -- have been bitter rivals since the Middle Ages, the two EU partners now concentrate on trading tourists rather than arrows. What animosity remains has been relegated to world culinary name-calling, with the French and British reduced to froggies and rosbifs (roast beef) respectively.


But even under the circumstances, the suggestion that France accept the British queen struck historians as bizarre.

Mollet was a Socialist, and left-wing Frenchmen looked to the execution of French King Louis XVI as one of the crowning achievements of the French Revolution. They would have been unlikely to welcome a foreign monarch with open arms. ''It must have been some kind of eccentric gesture,'' Vinen said.

The former French leader's memoirs showed nothing about the proposal, said Francois Lafon, a history professor at La Sorbonne in Paris and a Mollet biographer. Lafon suggested it was probably a political tactic to pressure the British to firm up their role for the imminent attack on Egypt.


Mine eyes have seen the glory (PDF): Since I mentioned it earlier, today's as good a day as any to post the immortal last public words of Dr. King. "Morning Edition" played the last minute, or so, this morning, and, as every year, when I hear it I feel the tingling of the knife-tip pointed at King's aorta, which he references earlier; and I feel the goose-flesh of knowing that words so powerful as these were the great civil rights legend's last. From Stanford University's excellent compilation of his most important sermons, speeches and letters:

It doesn't really matter what happens now. I left Atlanta this morning, and as we got started on the plane—there were six of us—the pilot said over the public address system: "We are sorry for the delay, but we have Dr. Martin Luther King on the plane. And to be sure that all of the bags were checked, and to be sure that nothing would be wrong on the plane, we had to check out everything carefully. And we've had the plane protected and guarded all night."

And then I got into Memphis. And some began to say the threats, or talk about the threats that were out, or what would happen to me from some of our sick white brothers.

Well, I don't know what will happen now; we've got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn't matter with me now, because I've been to the mountaintop. And I don't mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life—longevity has its place. But I'm not concerned about that now. I just want to do God's will. And He's allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I've looked over, and I've seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land. And so I'm happy tonight; I'm not worried about anything; I'm not fearing any man. My eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.


'We shall overcome': Martin Luther King, in his last Sunday sermon at the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C., exhorted his audience to continue the fight against racism. He also responded sharply to those who attacked him for progressing too quickly: America, he said, was all but poisoned by racism. The sermon, from Passion Sunday, is one of his finest, and, like the vastly more legendary "I've Been to the Mountain Top" (PDF) speech in Memphis a week later, also strangely prophetic. We have all felt, listening to his words, the chill of knowing that he would be dead just a few days later. But in this sermon, unlike the "Mountain Top" address, he lashes out:

The hour has come for everybody, for all institutions of the public sector and the private sector to work to get rid of racism. And now if we are to do it we must honestly admit certain things and get rid of certain myths that have constantly been disseminated all over our nation.

One is the myth of time. It is the notion that only time can solve the problem of racial injustice. And there are those who often sincerely say to the Negro and his allies in the white community, "Why don’t you slow up? Stop pushing things so fast. Only time can solve the problem. And if you will just be nice and patient and continue to pray, in a hundred or two hundred years the problem will work itself out."

There is an answer to that myth. It is that time is neutral. It can be used wither constructively or destructively. And I am sorry to say this morning that I am absolutely convinced that the forces of ill will in our nation, the extreme rightists of our nation—the people on the wrong side—have used time much more effectively than the forces of goodwill. And it may well be that we will have to repent in this generation. Not merely for the vitriolic words and the violent actions of the bad people, but for the appalling silence and indifference of the good people who sit around and say, "Wait on time."

Somewhere we must come to see that human progress never rolls in on the wheels of inevitability. It comes through the tireless efforts and the persistent work of dedicated individuals who are willing to be co-workers with God. And without this hard work, time itself becomes an ally of the primitive forces of social stagnation. So we must help time and realize that the time is always ripe to do right.

Now there is another myth that still gets around: it is a kind of over reliance on the bootstrap philosophy. There are those who still feel that if the Negro is to rise out of poverty, if the Negro is to rise out of the slum conditions, if he is to rise out of discrimination and segregation, he must do it all by himself. And so they say the Negro must lift himself by his own bootstraps.

They never stop to realize that no other ethnic group has been a slave on American soil. The people who say this never stop to realize that the nation made the black man’s color a stigma. But beyond this they never stop to realize the debt that they owe a people who were kept in slavery two hundred and forty-four years.


My baby, she wrote me an e-mail: A dimension to the shift to electronic communications I hadn't considered is the impact on historians and novelists. We are losing not just an entire genre, that of the epistolary novel, but also a valuable research tool. In the era of e-mail, people simply don't write letters the way they used to. Worse still, email are much more likely to be lost. Physics World muses on this brave new world:

Historians at the American Institute of Physics (AIP), who are working on a project to document the history of physics in industry, have encountered hints of how the Internet and computers are transforming scientific communication.

E-mail is, of course, cheaper and encourages quicker thought, and it introduces a peculiar blend of the personal and professional. The AIP historians have also detected a decline in the use of lab notebooks, finding that data are often stored directly into computer files. Finally, they have noted the influence of PowerPoint, which can stultify scientific discussion and make it less free-wheeling; information also tends to be dumbed down when scientists submit PowerPoint presentations in place of formal reports.

Generally, though, these new communications techniques are good for scientists, encouraging rapid communication and stripping out hierarchies. But for historians, they are a mixed blessing. It is not just that searching through a hard disk or database is less romantic than poring over a dusty box of old letters in an archive. Nor is it that the information in e-mails differs in kind from that in letters. Far more worrying is the question of whether e-mail and other electronic data will be preserved at all.

One can lose letters, of course, a classic case being much of Planck's correspondence thanks to an Allied bomb in the Second World War. But the challenges of electronic preservation are more extensive and immediate. As AIP historian Spencer Weart notes: "We have paper from 2000 but we can't read the first e-mail ever sent. We have the data, and the magnetic tape – but the format is lost." Weart is fond of quoting RAND researcher Jeff Rothenberg's remark that "it is only slightly facetious to say that digital information lasts forever – or five years, whichever comes first", meaning that information lasts only if regularly migrated to another format.


Free at last, free at last: Today is Martin Luther King Day. In honor of the birth of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who for some reason gets shortened into just three names, I am posting Mark Liberman's fascinating analysis of the phonetics of the famous "I Have a Dream" speech. He notes the sharp difference in the phonetics of the speaking styles of John F. Kennedy and King, for instance. It's a good read. From Language Log:

His timing is eloquent: he speeds up and slows down in a way that conveys how his sentences are put together. Every fluent speaker does this to some extent, and he does it abundantly and at the same time precisely. But within most phrases in this speech, his pitch is relatively level, almost as if he were chanting or singing rather than speaking.

In particular, his phrases often end with a sustained or slightly falling pitch, instead of the steeper relaxation to low pitch that English phrases usually have. Because the expected falls are missing, some of his sutained final syllables (e.g. "today" in the opening phrases) may sound to some people as if they go up. But listen carefully, and look at the pitch contours


Of course, King's individual phrases in this speech do have a melody -- though sometimes a subtle one -- that helps convey his message. And he varied the overall pitch range much more widely from section to section of the speech, as effective speakers since time immemorial have done to embody the ebb and flow of ideas and emotions. But there was something about the way that he chanted each phrase, like a song or a prayer, that commanded attention and memory.


Sunday, January 14, 2007

There is a house in New Orleans…: I’m taking the day off to celebrate the Saints victory, ladies and gentlemen. I have no voice, I have no energy, I have a mild hang-over, and I hurt my elbow pounding on the counter at One Eyed Jack’s, which happens to have three enormous big screens showing the game. So all I have left today is rest, commemorative rest. 27-24 is all that matters today, be it here in Orlando, or in New Orleans.

Tomorrow, I’ll do my usual Sunday-style posting, from the Sunday Times.

When the Saints go marching in: Tonight, my oldest sports loyalty of all finally paid off. I’ve been a fan of the New Orleans Saints my entire life — unlike, say, the Blazers, the Ducks, the ‘Cats, the Cubs, the Suns or the D’backs, I was born to the Saints — and tonight, the Saints beat the Eagles 27-24 to pull within one game of the Super Bowl for the first time. Saints fans have a special chant for that: “Who dat say dey gonna beat dem Saints? Who dat! Who dat!” And tonight, I screamed that, at the top of my lungs, in a bar in downtown Orlando. From the Associated Press:

To constant chants of “DEUCE!” or “REG-GIE! REG-GIE!” the Saints used an assortment of spectacular plays to beat the Philadelphia Eagles 27-24.

“This year, some things have happened for us and it’s like, wow, this may be destiny,” McAllister said.

“It means everything,” Bush said. “All that stuff we went through as a team, these are the type of games we live for. And this game is even bigger for the city.”

The Saints are the first team in NFL history to make a conference championship after losing 13 or more games the previous season.

With victory secured for the Saints (11-6) on McAllister’s powerful rushes for a clinching first down to run out the clock, team owner Tom Benson did his “Benson Boogie” on the field. The players hugged and saluted their long-suffering fans while a jazz band belted out tunes.

“I think it means a tremendous amount,” quarterback Drew Brees said. “You could see it and feel it after the game, people still standing and yelling and screaming.”


Saturday, January 13, 2007

Take your cod liver oil: Americans eat spectacularly badly, and we've ruined the food chain of the animals we eat, to boot. So food manufacturers have long added artificially derived nutritional supplements to processed foods — but not everything could be added easily and cheaply. Until now. Arrive the Omega-3 craze:

Yet that has not stopped [executives from Martek, who sell an algae-based Omega-3 additive] from promoting DHA’s potential health benefits more broadly. “If you have a product that reduces your chance of Alzheimer’s,” Mr. Dubin said, “if it improves your cardiovascular, if it improves your eyesight, if it improves the health of your baby, then I have to think consumers will say that’s worth an extra 25 or 50 cents a day for these benefits.”

He may be right. After all, this is a country where people concerned about their cholesterol will cut their egg intake in half but then consume four times as many servings of a fat-rich superpremium ice cream. Our tortured relationship to food might just help Martek’s cause.

“My experience in nutrition is that single nutrients rarely produce miracles,” said Marion Nestle, a professor in the department of nutrition, food studies and public health at New York University and the author of “What to Eat,” published last year. “But it’s also been my experience that companies will put anything in their food if they think the extra marketing hype will help them sell more of it.”

For a long time, the typical American diet contained plenty of omega-3, DHA included. But that was when cattle were not trapped in pens and actually roamed the prairies and grazed on grass, which is a good source of omega-3s, rather than eating feed-lot corn and soy, which are not. Eggs, too, used to be a strong source, but chickens have undergone a similar lifestyle change.


You can’t handle the truth: The House passed a bill that would raise the minimum wage to $7.25 per hour on Wednesday. Over the next few weeks, as the Senate considers the law, we’re sure to hear much commentary about how minimum wage earners are not supporting families, and how it’s going to be an enormous hardship for businesses to pay more. But both the Times and the Washington Post are calling these commentators out on the mat. From the Times:

Nearly a decade ago, when voters in Washington approved a measure that would give the state’s lowest-paid workers a raise nearly every year, many business leaders predicted that small towns on this side of the state line would suffer.

But instead of shriveling up, small-business owners in Washington say they have prospered far beyond their expectations. In fact, as a significant increase in the national minimum wage heads toward law, businesses here at the dividing line between two economies — a real-life laboratory for the debate — have found that raising prices to compensate for higher wages does not necessarily lead to losses in jobs and profits.


Business owners say they have had to increase prices somewhat to keep up. But both states are among the nation’s leaders in the growth of jobs and personal income, suggesting that an increase in the minimum wage has not hurt the overall economy.

“We’re paying the highest wage we’ve ever had to pay, and our business is still up more than 11 percent over last year,” said Tom Singleton, who manages a Papa Murphy’s takeout pizza store here, with 13 employees.

His store is flooded with job applicants from Idaho, Mr. Singleton said. Like other business managers in Washington, he said he had less turnover because the jobs paid more.

By contrast, an Idaho restaurant owner, Rob Elder, said he paid more than the minimum wage because he could not find anyone to work for the Idaho minimum at his Post Falls restaurant, the Hot Rod Cafe.

“At $5.15 an hour, I get zero applicants — or maybe a guy with one leg who wouldn’t pass a drug test and wouldn’t show up on Saturday night because he wants to get drunk with his buddies,” Mr. Elder said.

[Times Link]

And from the Post, how even $7.25 an hour doesn’t exactly make life grand:

Robert Iles has his own version of a dollar’s meaning, learned last February when Bower took him aside and said he would be getting a pay raise to $7.25. “Okay,” Iles remembers replying, wanting to seem businesslike. “But inside I was doing the cha-cha-cha,” he said. “It was like going from lower class to lower middle class.”

Soon after, he bought his car, a used 2005 Dodge Neon, and just about every workday since then he has spent his lunch break in the driver’s seat, eating a bologna sandwich with the engine off to save gas, even in winter. An hour later, he was back behind the cash register, telling customers “Thank you and have a nice day” again and again.


Seven dollars and twenty-five cents an hour equals $15,080 per year, and out of that comes $313 for the car loan and $100 for car insurance, Iles said, going over his monthly bills. An additional $90 for the 1995 car with 135,000 miles on it that he is buying from a friend for his mother, $150 for the family phone bills, $35 on his credit card, $100 for gas, $100 toward the mortgage on the trailer. “That’s about it. Oh yeah, $20 in doctors’ bills,” he said, and totaled it up on fingers scarred by surgical stitches. Nine hundred and eight dollars. “I bring home 900 a month,” he said. “So I very rarely have any money for myself.”

[Post Link]

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

How many coincidences?: In Fayetteville, Ark., on New Year’s Day, police caught two young men driving a 1991 Ford Econoline van, weaving, with possession of marijuana and a loaded gun. Turns out one of them was the architect of the 1998 Jonesboro school shootings — and the other shot his father with a crossbow in 1999. What’s the likelihood that they’re roommates now?! More in the News You Can’t Make Up category. From the AP:

One of two boys convicted in the 1998 Jonesboro school shootings was found with a loaded gun and marijuana on New Year’s Day, along with his roommate, a man incarcerated for three years as a teen for killing his father with a crossbow.

Mitchell Johnson, now 22, was 13 when he and classmate Andrew Golden killed four girls and a teacher in a March 24, 1998, shooting at Jonesboro Westside Middle School. Justin Trammell was 15 when convicted of killing his father in 1999.

Trammell was driving Johnson’s 1991 Ford Econoline van a few blocks from their residence at the Appleby Apartments, 2918 N. Gregg St. in Fayetteville, when a sheriff’s officer noticed it weaving about 8 p.m. New Year’s Day. Washington County Deputy Jak Kimball said Cpl. Steven Hulsey smelled marijuana and asked to search the van.


Brent Davis, who prosecuted the 1998 case against Johnson and Golden, said the fact Johnson has a clean criminal record shows the law was “woefully inadequate” when dealing with juveniles who commit brutal crimes.

“It’s not like he’s on parole or probation or any restrictions, as odd as it seems, in light of what he’s previously been involved in,” Davis said.

Mitchell’s arrest and “the fact that his past is not considered is just another example of the inadequacy of the law that we had to deal with,” Davis said.


Tuesday, January 9, 2007

A hand for the noodle man: Yesterday, Momofuku Ando died. Normally this might not be the occasion for a blog post; but Mr. Ando was a pioneer: He invented instant ramen noodles. For this, he is, or should be, revered by everyone who ever attended university in the United States, including those of us who could afford to eat better, for his food’s remarkably low cost and filling Asian taste. The world is forever in debt to Mr. Ando, as Lawrence Downes writes in the Times:

Momofuku Ando, who died in Ikeda, near Osaka, at 96, was looking for cheap, decent food for the working class when he invented ramen noodles all by himself in 1958. His product — fried, dried and sold in little plastic-wrapped bricks or foam cups — turned the company he founded, Nissin Foods, into a global giant. According to the company’s Web site, instant ramen satisfies more than 100 million people a day. Aggregate servings of the company’s signature brand, Cup Noodles, reached 25 billion worldwide in 2006.

There are other versions of fast noodles. There is spaghetti in a can. It is sweetish and gloppy and a first cousin of dog food. Macaroni and cheese in a box is a convenience product requiring several inconvenient steps. You have to boil the macaroni, stir it to prevent sticking and determine through some previously obtained expertise when it is “done.” You must separate water from noodles using a specialized tool, a colander, and to complete the dish — such an insult — you have to measure and add the fatty deliciousness yourself, in the form of butter and milk that Kraft assumes you already have on hand. All that effort, plus the cleanup, is hardly worth it.

Ramen noodles, by contrast, are a dish of effortless purity. Like the egg, or tea, they attain a state of grace through a marriage with nothing but hot water. After three minutes in a yellow bath, the noodles soften. The pebbly peas and carrot chips turn practically lifelike. A near-weightless assemblage of plastic and foam is transformed into something any college student will recognize as food, for as little as 20 cents a serving.


But those are minor quibbles. Ramen noodles have earned Mr. Ando an eternal place in the pantheon of human progress. Teach a man to fish, and you feed him for a lifetime. Give him ramen noodles, and you don’t have to teach him anything.


Just one huge more thing: Steve Jobs just shocked everyone on Earth, I think, by introducing a combined cell phone-slash-iPod-slash-PDA. This thing is ridiculous. I can’t do it justice. (I promised that I would eat my hat if the iPhone rumor was true, so I guess I’m going to have to find a fork and knife.) And the entire rest of the cellular industry is going to have to catch up to their stiffest competition, just like the mobile-music industry — but there’s a lot more money on the line right now. The Times says:

In an exclusive partnership with Cingular, the nation’s largest cellular phone carrier, Mr. Jobs brought his legendary product design sense to bear on one of the world’s most ubiquitous products. He said Apple had set the goal of taking 1 percent of the world market for cell phones, or 10 million phones per year, by the end of 2008.

Underscoring the transformation of a quirky computer maker that during the past half decade has come to dominate the world of digital music, and signaling his ambition to become a force in new markets, Mr. Jobs announced that the Apple was dropping the “computer” from its name and would henceforth become Apple Inc.


Touting the fact that the new iPhone is powered by the same core OS X operating system that runs Macintosh computers, Mr. Jobs showed a series of applications including e-mail, advanced voice mail, photo collections and visually appealing Web searching all on a device that will be priced beginning at $499. That model will have four gigabytes of storage, and an eight-gigabyte model will be available for $599.

The iPhone will offer five hours of operating time and 16 hours of audio playback, Mr. Jobs said. The phone will be compatible with Cingular’s digital EDGE data network as well as Wi-Fi and Bluetooth networks.


Covered: California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger may have finally redeemed himself in the eyes of the Golden State’s Democrats. (Fortunately, he still can’t run for president.) He’s proposing a universal health care system for California, along the lines of Massachusetts’, and if he gets it through he might be known as something other than the Governator someday. In the Times:

Under Mr. Schwarzenegger’s proposal, Medi-Cal would be extended to adults who earn as much as 100 percent above the federal poverty line and to children, regardless of their immigration status, living in homes where the family income is as much as 300 percent above that line, about $60,000 a year for a family of four. Medi-Cal is currently limited to adults with children, and children with documented residency are covered if their family’s income is up to 250 percent above of the poverty line.

Adult illegal immigrants would continue to be barred from Medicaid benefits but would still be entitled to health services from their counties and the state’s hospital system.

Employers would have new responsibilities as well. Businesses with 10 or more workers that choose not to offer coverage would be required to pay 4 percent of their total Social Security wages to a state fund that would be created to subsidize the purchase of coverage by the working uninsured. The cost of such coverage would be measured on a sliding scale depending on what an employee earned, and employees would be able to pay for it using pretax dollars.


On the provider side, the governor’s plan contains privileges and responsibilities. Doctors and hospitals, which have long complained about Medi-Cal’s low reimbursement rates, would benefit from a $4 billion increase in annual reimbursement. But the state would tax doctors 2 percent of their total revenues, and hospitals 4 percent, to help pay for the greater reimbursement.


Aides to the governor said financing for the program would come from roughly $5 billion in federal money the state believes it will be owed through restructuring of its health care programs, and through a redirection of state money that now goes toward what is basically charity care, among other measures.

The chief executive of Blue Shield of California, Bruce G. Bodaken, described what might happen once the Legislature began to debate the governor’s proposal.

“Taking each part separately, there’s something for everyone to hate,” Mr. Bodaken said. “But taken as a whole, there’s a lot to like.”


Monday, January 8, 2007

An everyman indeed: The Times follows up today on Wesley Autrey, the man who leapt onto the subway tracks to save a man's life. They want to know, could any of us do the same thing? Would we? The answer, it seems to be, is... probably:

People wondered, because they had asked themselves, “Could I have done what he did?” and very often the answer was no. Mr. Autrey, 50, a construction worker and Navy veteran, leapt in front of a train to rescue a stranger who had suffered a seizure and fallen onto the tracks. He covered the stranger’s body with his own as the train passed overhead. Both men lived.

Mr. Autrey, who left two young daughters on the platform when he jumped, later chalked up his actions to a simple compulsion to help another in distress.

But is there something in Mr. Autrey that the rest of us lack? Probably not, experts say. Except for sociopaths, humans are built to feel and act out of empathy, said Stephen G. Post, a professor of bioethics at Case Western Reserve University’s medical school and co-author of “Why Good Things Happen to Good People,” scheduled to be published in May. Social support has always been important to survival, and people with strong social networks thrive more than those who are isolated.


Saturday, January 6, 2007

Save his brain for research: Richard Dawkins argues, on his website, that hanging Saddam Hussein was a terrible decision, because it cost us who knows how much valuable research. It’s a persuasive argument:

Saddam Hussein could have provided irreplaceable help to future historians of the Iran/Iraq war, of the invasion of Kuwait, and of the subsequent era of sanctions culminating in the current invasion. Uniquely privileged evidence on the American government’s enthusiastic arming of Saddam before they switched loyalties is now snuffed out at the tug of a rope (no doubt to the relief of Donald Rumsfeld and other guilty parties — it is surely no accident that the trial of Saddam neglected those of his crimes that might — no, would — have implicated them).

Political scientists of the future, studying the processes by which unscrupulous leaders arise and take over national institutions, have now lost key evidence forever. But perhaps the most important research in which a living Saddam Hussein could have helped is psychological. Most people can’t even come close to understanding how any man could be so cruel as Hitler or Saddam Hussein, or how such transparently evil monsters could secure sufficient support to take over an entire country. What were the formative influences on these men? Was it something in their childhood that turned them bad? In their genes? In their testosterone levels? Could the danger have been nipped in the bud by an alert psychiatrist before it was too late? How would Hitler, or Saddam Hussein have responded to a different style of education? We don’t have a clear answer to these questions. We need to do the research.


The Everyman to the rescue: The “Spider-Man” franchise is successful because Spidey is an Everyman. He could be you, or me, except for a chance accident. So, where Bruce Wayne is an obscenely wealthy man hellbent on vengeance, and Superman was born on another planet, Peter Parker just happened to get bitten by a research spider. And so the legend was born.

Another legend was born in New York City on Wednesday. Wesley Autrey helped save the life of a man who was having an epileptic seizure, by leaping onto the tracks after the man fell onto the tracks in front of a coming subway train. He pinned the man, Cameron Hollopeter, in the tiny drainage trough between the bottom of the car’s undercarriage and the tracks, between the wheels. They narrowly avoided the Third Rail, and not the metaphorical one, but the actual one that powers the train. What a hero. USA Today has a fantastic graphic depicting the rescue, and this harrowing account:

On Tuesday afternoon Autrey leaped down from a subway station platform after Cameron Hollopeter, 20, apparently suffered a seizure and fell between the tracks.

Autrey had to leave his two daughters, ages 4 and 6, on the platform. It was that, he said, or have the girls see a man run over by a subway train.

Down on the tracks, Autrey saw a train’s headlights in the tunnel. He shoved the disoriented student into the only space where they had a chance to survive — the shallow, grimy drainage trough between the tracks.

The train passed over them, with about 2 inches’ clearance. Autrey later showed reporters grease stains on his wool hat that he said came from the train’s undercarriage.

On Wednesday Autrey got the day off from work at a Brooklyn construction site and visited the New York Film Academy, where Hollopeter is a student.

“We don’t have a red carpet, but we gave him a red carpet reception,” said Anita Tovich, one of Hollopeter’s professors. Jerry Sherlock, director of the school, presented Autrey with a check for $5,000.


Ain't no place to roam, no place to park: In San Francisco, parking has long been a nightmare, a disaster told in legend. But it gets worse each year, as more people move in and wish to have somewhere to put their vehicles, that curiously Californian obsession. The Times reports on the epidemic:

Burdened with one of the densest downtowns in the country and a Californian love for moving vehicles, San Franciscans have been shocked in recent months by crimes related to finding places to park, including an attack in September in which a young man was killed trying to defend a spot he had found. [...]

People in the field say abuse is common, often frightening and, occasionally, humiliating. In November, an officer was spat on, another was punched through the window of his Geo Metro, and an irate illegal parker smashed the windshield of another officer’s golf-cart-like vehicle.

“Just driving down the street, you get yelled at,” said Lawanna Preston, staff director for Local 790 of the Service Employees International Union, which represents parking control officers.


“Any city that is worth visiting is going to have a terrible parking problem,” said Gabriel Metcalf, executive director of the San Francisco Planning and Urban Research Association, a public policy center. “If you don’t want it to be Disneyland or Houston, you’re going to be experiencing a parking shortage.”

Mr. Metcalf added, however, that the density of San Francisco, with an estimated 740,000 residents in 49 square miles, also put in a different category from New York, which is also known for its parking nightmares.


Friday, January 5, 2007

Good-bye to All That: Today, Bill Cowher bid goodbye to the Pittsburgh Steelers, the franchise he’d coached for 15 years. It’s amazing to think that anyone could coach a pro football team that long; the next-longest-tenured coach might very well be Bill Belichik, though I’d have to look it up. He is only the franchise’s second coach, and has a career record of 161-99-1 and a Super Bowl ring. And on the same day, the Raiders fired Art Shell for the second time in his career, this time after a disastrous 2-14 season during which time Shell may not have spoken a word. Goodbye, Bill Cowher; and good riddance, Art Shell. The AP on Cowher, a living legend:

“History will look back on Bill Cowher as one of the great coaches of all time,” Steelers chairman Dan Rooney said.


Cowher, one of the NFL’s most recognizable faces and successful coaches, has weighed resigning since shortly after the Steelers finally won the Super Bowl in February. But he wouldn’t say Friday he is retiring — meaning he could return to an NFL sideline some day, though he wouldn’t discuss that at his final Steelers news conference.

“That makes you feel old,” Cowher said of the word retirement.

Before winning the Super Bowl, Cowher always said his one goal was to hand Rooney the Lombardi Trophy. Rooney returned the favor Friday, handing Cowher a miniature silver trophy at his going-away news conference.

One of the NFL’s rarest events now will occur — a Steelers coaching search. They have had only two coaches since 1969, when they still were playing in Pitt Stadium: Chuck Noll (23 seasons) and Cowher. The Baltimore/Indianapolis Colts have had 15 coaches during that time.


And ESPN’s Mark Kreidler on the reliably disastrous Second Art Shell Era:

Ye olde problem is beginning to sharpen into focus, isn’t it? The Raiders are 15-49 over the past four seasons. They just completed a campaign that featured the worst offensive performance in the history of the franchise. They had as one of their coordinators a man whose most recent job (this is true) had been running a bed-and-breakfast in Idaho. And Al Davis is reminiscing about the time Jim Plunkett threw over the top of the coverage for that 63-yard touchdown.

Davis is also marking the passage of the days, though, and from a Raider Nation standpoint, that is more significant now than ever. The respective tenures of the past four Oakland head coaches go like this: Jon Gruden, four years; Bill Callahan, two; Norv Turner, two; Shell, one empty campaign. There is no time for patience. Shell was a Raiders guy from the ghost of Raiders past, a pure Al Davis choice, and he still got the boot after a single season, albeit an unmitigated disaster, in which Jerry Porter was essentially banished and Randy Moss might as well have been. (Maybe Jim Plunkett isn’t such a bad place to start, after all.)

But dumping Shell is the easy part, intellectually if not emotionally. Beyond that move, Davis wakes up today in the same situation as when the regular season ended: He has an offense that scored 12 touchdowns in 16 games; he has a feud with Porter in which Davis very publicly has taken an extreme position (he said he’d trade Porter only if Porter paid back a massive chunk of his up-front contract money); he has an unhappy Moss and a pockmarked O-line; and he has a Raiders fan base that is becoming more exclusive by the game.


Green no more: For half a century, there has been controversy swirling around a map that purports to be a 14th-century Viking map depicting settlements in the New World. The question is, of course, could they have known what the map shows — that, for instance, Greenland is an island? Doesn’t sound likely. From Strange Maps:

In 1960, archeological excavations at L’Anse-aux-Meadows on Newfoundland turn up the remains of a Viking camp. For the first time, scientists establish that Vikings actually did cross the Atlantic. Interest in all things Vinland soars. Yale University buys the map in 1965, has it insured for $25 million and publishes it in that same year. That was the starting point for two debates that rage to this day: Where is Vinland? And: Is the map real?


While the map has been radiocarbon-dated to between 1423 and 1445, it appears to have been coated with an unknown substance in the 1950s. This could be an undocumented attempt at preservation, or it could be part of a forger’s attempt to draw a new map over an old one. It’s unclear whether this substance is over or under some of the ink on the page…

The ink itself has been chemically analysed, and dated to after 1923 due to the presence of anatase – a synthetic pigment in use only since the 1920s. Natural anatase has been demonstrated in various Mediaeval manuscripts, though.

As for the content of the map, a number of questions challenge the age of the document. Greenland is presented as an island – a fact not physically proven until the turn of the 20th century and unknown to the Vikings, who mostly thought it a peninsula descending from the north. Several passages in the text are equally anomalous.


O’er the land of the mostly free? Newly elected Democratic Rep. Keith Ellison, from Minnesota, is a Muslim. He elected to have a Koran present at his unofficial swearing-in for his first term, in lieu of a Bible. Republican Rep. Virgil Goode, from Virginia, seems to think this will mean the downfall of the Republic. Now, Ellison was sworn in yesterday using Thomas Jefferson’s copy of the Koran; but this gesture from one of our Founding Fathers, and a man from Goode’s home state, was lost on the good folk of Charlottesville, it seems. In the world view of this letter-writer to the Charlottesville Daily Progress, religious freedom is only for Christians:

This is not a Muslim country but a Christian country and a different God we worship.

We do not want the Quran but the Bible. He owes no one an apology.

Freedom of speech is one of the basics of our country. Yes, we have freedom of religion but not for people aspiring to run our country.

I attend Christian conferences and one that stands out in my memory is the Northern Ohio Christian Conference held at Oberlin College, winter and summer. One summer, a Christian from the Middle East traveled from Asia to Europe to America to address the conference, which he was permitted to do. His message was: The Communists are not your enemy but the Muslims.

As Virgil Goode stated, when you take an oath in this country or are being sworn in to serve the country, your right hand is upon a Bible. I believe this is true in a jury trial.

You swear to tell the truth and the Bible represents the truth to most of us.

Americans fought the Revolutionary War to gain their freedoms and we are not about to let any immigrants strip it away from us.

Yes, Virginia, people like this actually exist.


Wednesday, January 3, 2007

Tangled up in who? Lately, it has seemed as though everyone on Earth with an Internet connection has already seen the video of the execution of Saddam Hussein, except me. But it turns out I have a fellow compatriot, of a sort: the President of the United States of America. We have different motivations, I’m sure, because I’m a pacifist, and squeamish, and George is, to quote Reuters, “focused on ‘the way forward’ in Iraq.” Cue the Jon Stewart Face:

The White House said U.S. concerns about the way Saddam’s execution was carried out were expressed to the Iraqi government through the U.S. Embassy and military officials in Baghdad.

Bush’s focus was on the judicial process that was followed in Iraq and “the way forward,” White House spokesman Scott Stanzel said.

“The president has said that he was pleased that the Iraqi people carried forward a judicial process, tried someone who has murdered hundreds of thousands of Iraqi citizens, and carried forward justice that was unimaginable during his reign. And that’s where the president’s focus was,” he said.

Asked why Bush had not seen the video, Stanzel replied: “Because that’s not his focus.”


We tripped the light fantastic: Adam Gopnik, also in this week’s New Yorker, muses on what Michael Bloomberg’s plans for the city might mean for the future of New York. The old New York, on which I will have to trust authorities like Gopnik, was the kind of place where heterogeneity was not just prized but literally part of the city. The new New York is just a much more dense suburb:

What seemed a little odd about the plan, and the speech, though, is that the one thing that leaves many New Yorkers worried, or at least uneasy, was nowhere mentioned — perhaps because the Mayor doesn’t notice it, perhaps because that worry is a little metaphysical and almost poetic, resistant to oratory or city budget numbers. It is the sense that the city’s recovery has come at the cost of a part of its identity: that New York is safer and richer but less like itself, an old lover who has gone for a face-lift and come out looking like no one in particular. The wrinkles are gone, but so is the face. This transformation is one you see on every street corner in Manhattan, and now in Brooklyn, too, where another local toy store or smoked-fish emporium disappears and another bank branch or mall store opens. For the first time in Manhattan’s history, it has no bohemian frontier. Another bookstore closes, another theatre becomes a condo, another soulful place becomes a sealed residence. These are small things, but they are the small things that the city’s soul clings to.

By a city we don’t mean, or just mean, a place where many people live; we mean a place where many kinds of people live, all more or less on top of each other. Though Mrs. Astor knew nothing of the Lower East Side, and the Lower East Side could only dream of Mrs. Astor, they were still nodes on one grid. In the course of any even semiconscious wandering through the city—much less the kind of conscious wondering that marks the city’s poetry and literature from Walt Whitman to Alfred Kazin and beyond—each group bumped visually and tangibly into the other. Only twenty-five years ago, a walk from Tribeca to SoHo and the Lower East Side would show as many kinds and classes—rich, aspiring, immigrant—as it had a century before; now that walk is likely to show only the same six stores and the same two banks and the same one shopper.


Tuesday, January 2, 2007

I'm so ronery, so ronery and sadry arone: In Portland, my hometown, a dog boarded a local bus in Gresham and rode all the way to the Gresham Transit Center, where he was picked up by police. No one has any idea who he belongs to. Poor dog. From the Oregonian:

The dog boarded the bus the same time as a passenger did -- about 2:30 p.m. -- at Northeast 168th Avenue and Sandy Boulevard, according to TriMet spokesman Bruce Solberg.

Pets are not allowed unless they are in a carrier, or they are service animals for disabled passengers. When the bus driver asked the man if the dog was a service animal, the man said the dog wasn’t his.

The dog was well-behaved, Solberg said. After reporting the situation, the driver allowed the dog to ride to the Gresham Transit Center where a Portland police officer picked him up and brought him to the Oregon Human Society, which then turned him over to Multnomah County Animal Services.

At the humane society, the staff nicknamed the dog "Buster," spokesman David Lytle said.

In the Navy! Among democratic military powers, the United States is alone in banning openly gay men and women from serving in the military. But the new Democratic Congress is set to take up a repeal of the Clinton-era "don't ask-don't tell" policy, and with President Bush looking to add a lot more troops to Iraq, that would be a cheap and easy way to get a few thousand more soldiers. Repealing might just happen, in other words. Retired Gen. John Shalikashvili, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in the Clinton administration, makes the case in the New York Times op-ed pages today (TimesSelect):

When I was chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, I supported the current policy because I believed that implementing a change in the rules at that time would have been too burdensome for our troops and commanders. I still believe that to have been true. The concern among many in the military was that given the longstanding view that homosexuality was incompatible with service, letting people who were openly gay serve would lower morale, harm recruitment and undermine unit cohesion.


I now believe that if gay men and lesbians served openly in the United States military, they would not undermine the efficacy of the armed forces. Our military has been stretched thin by our deployments in the Middle East, and we must welcome the service of any American who is willing and able to do the job.


Singing in the shower: Sometimes, the New Yorker publishes essays with virtually no news value at all, just for the sake of keeping up their reputation for snark and sarcasm. This week, they succeed with a brilliant “Shouts and Murmurs,” from Ian Frazier, about how to use a shower:

Keep in mind that normal bathing will cause you unavoidably to bump against shower curtain, which may cling to you for a moment owing to the natural adhesiveness of water. Some guests find the sensation of wet plastic on their naked flesh upsetting, and overreact to it. Instead, pinch the shower curtain between your thumb and forefinger near where it is adhering to you and simply move away from it until it is disengaged. Then, with the ends of your fingers, push it back to where it is supposed to be.

If shower curtain reattaches itself to you, repeat process above. Under certain atmospheric conditions, a convection effect creates air currents outside shower curtain which will press it against you on all sides no matter what you do. If this happens, stand directly under showerhead until bathroom microclimate stabilizes.

Many guests are surprised to learn that all water pipes in our system run off a single riser. This means that the opening of any hot or cold tap, or the flushing of a toilet, interrupts flow to shower. If you find water becoming extremely hot (or cold), exit tub promptly while using a sweeping motion with one arm to push shower curtain aside.


Money can’t buy you divorce: Divorce is messy. Isn’t that the way it always goes? The other day I watched “The Squid and the Whale,” which is all about a teenager struggling to cope with his parents’ divorce. And if Barack Obama should someday be elected president of the United States of America, they should thank the Chicago Tribune and a California judge for unsealing Jack Ryan’s divorce records. But apparently, two billionaire Californians decided they were going to make things a lot less miserable for everyone:

When [Tim and Edra Blixseth] decided to divorce, they spent a single afternoon in the Beverly Hills Hotel, dividing it all up. With just two notebooks and a bottle of wine, the Blixseths — California real-estate tycoons and founders of the famed Yellowstone Club — finished the job in a matter of hours.

No attorneys. No accountants. No judges.

She kept their 420-acre estate. He got the house in Mexico. He kept his land businesses. She kept the dogs. They each got a Rolls Royce, and they will share their three private jets.


Rather than fighting over every piece of silver, the Blixseths decided to keep what’s most important to each of them and split the difference. Life’s too short, they figured. And why give the lawyers all the money if you can work it out yourselves?